The Pilgrim and the Bee

"The Pilgrim and the Bee makes a broad claim about a reading-centered history, reclaiming for this purpose a distinctive body of texts. Brown's analysis marks an important step toward a better history of reading."—David D. Hall, Harvard University

The Pilgrim and the Bee
Reading Rituals and Book Culture in Early New England

Matthew P. Brown

2007 | 288 pages | Cloth $65.00
Literature | Library Science and Publishing
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Table of Contents

Preface: A Phenomenology of the Book

Introduction: Toward a Reader-Based Literary History

Chapter 1. The Presence of the Text
Chapter 2. Devotional Steady Sellers and the Conduct of Reading
Chapter 3. Ritual Fasting
Chapter 4. Ritual Mourning
Chapter 5. Race, Literacy, and the Eliot Mission


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

A Phenomenology of the Book

You have in your hand a book, which you are starting to read. Or had you already begun? You most likely encountered the title, on the spine or jacket, wondering perhaps about the inapposite figures and bearing patiently with the specialized, didactic, impacted—it's a monograph after all—subtitle. You perhaps met these words again, with less patience, on the title page. But wait, you first may have read more of the book's exterior, discovering a publishing house, an author's name, a visual image perhaps relevant to the book's themes, a summary of the book, and, maybe, blurbs. Did the summary say anything about bees? Good. You also felt—and feel—the book, its heft and creak, the stubble on a library binding, or the laminate sheen of a paperback. And then you opened it. Yet you were not here yet. You flipped through the blank endpapers, glanced at the copyright page and detected the work's date, its Library of Congress subject headings, its edition number, ran back across the title page and arrived . . . Well, no, not here yet, because it is possible you skipped to the bibliography and index, looked to see if books or persons of concern appear in the main text. In the index, you may have come across the word "phenomenology." I'm sorry. Still, no matter, you have found other books and ideas that were unexpected and which will, you hope, engage you. A turn to the table of contents: a chapter on fasting, you hate your diet, you don't go there. Better to return to the back, reading the endnotes, scouring their tiny font for references to debates in literary history or for leads for your own, more interesting research. At some point you came to this paragraph.

A writer should be so lucky as to have a reader as attentive as the one I have just imagined. Your reading experience is perhaps nothing like the preceding paragraph, which is partly my point. Acts of reading are unique, and the activity of reading changes from context to context, historical moment to historical moment. But that my opening scenario might describe a set of shared practices used on this or other books—practices amounting themselves to a kind of reading—is, I hope, a reasonable claim. Unlike the individual reading act, these shared practices, while here depicted as a set of academic customs, are part of a larger sociology of literacy generated by the handiness of the book format. And where does the social act of reading begin? Think of where you are and how you got this book. The shiny marketplace of a bookstore or exhibit, with its relative notion of choice? Or the shadowy space of the library stacks, where compulsion and leisure, labor and happenstance—the life of the mind—led you to it? Or was it passed on to you, in the odd psychodynamics of a gift economy, where obligation rather than choice informs the reading experience? And did references precede your encounter with the physical object: listings from a bookseller's website, subject headings from a library database, derisive comments in the hallway, or a recommendation from a gentle yet shrewd intellect, kind and discriminating, intent but not pushy, generous but without any of the casual lassitude that would mention a title offhandedly, a figure worthy of respect, indeed emulation, but never vain, a model of un-self-conscious integrity busy with the joys and sorrows of a life both examined and engaged? Or was the book a discard at the annual library sale? How do these environments shape your reception of the book?

That these literacy procedures are both radically different from and strangely akin to the reading habits of devout Protestants in early New England is, for now, my chief point. We are surrounded by books that we read indexically and discontinuously—cookbooks, travel guides, phone directories, affirmation titles, sacred texts—dipping into them for discrete fragments of information. And whatever we construe as the "main text" of a work, this content's meaning is always constrained and enabled by the institutions of, say, classroom, reading club, or McBooks superstore, through which the "main text" is encountered. Furthermore, the book format—a vessel for art and information, a container for the content—is itself endowed with meaning. Defined simply as a sequence of leaves of roughly the same size bound on one side, the codex is a specific vehicle of communication, a medium with storage capacity, a presence on shelves, in totes, and by bedsides, and a format distinct from flyers and letters, billboards and homepages. These general premises about indexical reading, textual environments, and the book format are starting points for analysis of communication in the seventeenth-century colonies.

Before a historicist commissar accuses me of presentism, I hurry to note the radical differences of early New England: a world of book goods defined by scarcity, not plenty; a hierarchical mode of access to books, rather than the relative democracy of consumer choice; a trade dependent on the European metropole; a very modest apparatus—ministerial reference, title page, frontispiece—for the "packaging" of books, with a knowledge that covers were mostly mute, and, when books were bought in sheets, nonexistent. I will detail such differences in the following pages. But how might these general premises, operative in the present and the past, apply to a specific historical context? What do discontinuous reading, textual environments, and the book format mean in early New England? And how might these habits and meanings relate to literary experience, to the sensory, imaginative, and affective knowledge prompted by book art?

This interaction of the reading subject with the book object is what I intend by the term "phenomenology," a soft use of a term borrowed from hard science and harder philosophy. Etymologically rooted in the Greek for "things that appear," phenomenology grants autonomy to objects in the world—"things"—while acknowledging the act of perception that apprehends such autonomous facts, making them "apparent." I hope to balance a study of reading's subjective life with an account of the book format's observable facts. Lending itself to such analysis, the core reading matter of early New England—scripture and almanacs—was complemented by a set of conduct books imported from England which were widely read, but which have been neglected by literary historians due to biases regarding authorship, genre, and country of origin. These steady-selling manuals of piety are the pivot for my inquiry.

This book's goals are threefold. First, I attempt to revise conceptions of early American literary history, through an effort to reconstruct the devotional reading habits of colonial New Englanders, with attention to the ignored but vital canon of steady sellers. Second, I rethink modes of culturalist readership history, which—defining itself against both quantitative literacy research and essentialist treatments of textuality—often neglects the specific properties of a work's physical format. While maintaining a critique of the quantitative and the essentialist, I also explain the written record's qualitative differences—its spatial, visual, and tactile properties—and their impact, within the myriad forms of communication in the early modern period. Third, I use the insights of book history to do this revisionist work, and—while suggesting new directions for the field—I thus advocate for book studies scholarship as an especially valuable method for pursuing a social history of culture. As a result of this method, I also tell a story about how the early American archive has been constructed. This historiographic narrative about the shifting meanings of literary culture in early New England accompanies a story that is, in the main, one of continuity rather than change.

After an introduction detailing these goals, Chapter 1 presents a context for understanding the steady-selling devotional literature. The chapter frames the analysis by describing the market and gift economies in which books circulated, by explaining the role of the book in modes of ritual worship, and by advancing the notion of the book as a vehicle for both textual aesthetics and information storage. The chapter substantiates these ideas by tracing an exemplary communications relay for the pious, organized by psalm texts, a staple of the steady seller trade. With special attention to Psalm 119 and its mediation through scripture, psalters, psalmbooks, and conduct manuals, I argue that the transit of sacred text helps inculcate practices of sacred reading. In turn, these reading practices are documented through reference to the ordinary devout's private writings, where the literacy rituals of Psalm 119 find their analogue in the scripture "Evidences" of Elizabeth Moore, the almanac-diary of Thomas Paine, the commonplace book of Thomas Weld, and the spiritual account of Joseph Tompson. These pious readers see books both as storehouses of discrete items and as unfolding, linear narratives.

Chapter 2 surveys the popular literature of the period, examining protocols for reading from scripture and from the steady sellers. Understanding literacy as a kind of performance, I explain that the linear and nonlinear styles of reading at work in the personal miscellanies are part of a larger program of readership shaping conduct and nurturing piety. To comprehend the sensory, performance-based reading practices of early New England, I develop the concepts of "hand piety" and "eye piety" to complement the conventional focus on puritan "heart piety." The reading program described in Chapters 1 and 2 is defined through two central tropes: on one hand, the pilgrimage, wherein readers treat texts as continuous narratives and follow a redemptive journey, a progressive telos or "growth in grace"; and, on the other, the alvearial, wherein readers, like bees, extract and deposit information discontinuously, treating texts as spatial objects, as flowers or hives which keep readers active but anchored. In this program, the visual, aural, and tactile qualities of texts prompt devotional motions that are alternately linear, cyclical, and static, deepening the spiritual plight of uncertain, worldly readers.

If Chapters 1 and 2 reconstruct this literary culture and its modes of practical piety, Chapters 3 and 4 turn to the genres and imprints of colonial-born writers that effaced the steady sellers to become key works of an "American Puritan" literary tradition. Along with providential histories and captivity narratives, fast-day sermons and elegies became, for critics interested in a national literary culture based on authorship, a central source: fast-day sermons for their jeremiad rhetoric and its putative Americanness, elegies for their status as the period's dominant lyrical mode, associated especially with Anne Bradstreet. By contextualizing the sermons and the elegies in light of how steady sellers guide the conduct of fasting and mourning, I root this literary experience in the lived customs of the devout, rather than in genre-based abstractions about the jeremiad's transhistorical force or in author-based treatments that neglect the many writers and readers of elegiac verse. For both fast-day sermons and elegies, these lived customs are organized around the look, sound, and feel of texts—in, say, the note-taking habits of sermon auditors and the broadside and manuscript versions of elegiac poetry—and the look, sound, and feel of bodies—in, say, the behavior at public worship and the grieving for sin, mortality, and loved ones.

How was a literary history made up of colonial-born writers and local imprints constructed, other than by the rather obvious point that scholars from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries made selections? From what did they choose? Chapter 5 addresses the role of John Eliot's mission to convert Native Americans in southern New England. Literacy was central to the conversion effort—Eliot famously translated a Massachusett oral language into a system of writing, and then produced a series of titles for "praying Indians" consistent with the steady-selling canon. Thus, conduct literature was essential to the mission, and the mission reports rely on a portrait of liminal piety among Amerindians, analogous to the spiritual plight of the devout English subject. A consequence of this drive to produce missionary literature, however, is a printing press that secures the publishing of fast-day sermons and broadside elegies for second-generation white audiences—and for latter-day literary historians.

Attending to what colonial readers preferred enriches our sense of the period's literary culture; and observing that a canon of sermons and elegies is itself dependent on indigenous peoples helps rethink the casting of American literary history. For the bias toward colonial authors and colonial printing is perhaps nowhere more pronounced in early American literary historiography than in treatments of the second-generation archive. In such historiography, the post-1660 elegies provide, for example, a background whereby the uniqueness of Bradstreet or Edward Taylor's contributions can be appreciated. Or the lugubrious poems are the prehistory to Benjamin Franklin's 1722 New England Courant satire "A Receipt to Make a New-England Funeral Elegy," which signals the exhaustion of the genre and thus the supposed shift to a secular literary era. This from-to narrative of American literary history—ignoring the abiding role of religious literary experience in the eighteenth century and beyond—is complemented by narratives of permanence, wherein jeremiad sermons about backsliding generations come to characterize American discourse as a whole. In our current moment—when we variously live under the media-driven shadow of the baby boom or the "Greatest Generation"—there is no doubt an attraction to such characterizations, and compelling scholarship has certainly been produced by this paradigm. But if we take seriously the steady sellers as the literary culture of the period, then this paradigm is revealed as a product both of misconstrued source material and of scholarship beholden to the paradigm's most influential proponent, Perry Miller, and the paradigm's most provocative commentator, Sacvan Bercovitch. And if we take seriously the mission's role in the production of texts upon which Miller draws, then we see that his archive and its formative role in American literary and intellectual history has as its pretext Native American bodies. Importantly, this is a point misrecognized as much by postcolonial critics antipathetic to Miller's scholarship as by followers of Miller and Bercovitch. My argument aims, then, for a practical fathoming of Walter Benjamin's pointed, breathless hyperbole, "there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism."